While his grade-school classmates in Kennebunkport, Maine were dreaming of glory in competitive sports or other fantasies common amongst young men, the Cold-War-era upbringing of Master Sgt. Geoff Dardia was already forging within him the singular focus of becoming an American commando, and earning him a placement within the ranks of the most elite military combat specialists in the world.
As impressive as it sounds to say that Dardia has spent the entirety of his long military career in Special Operations, that observation belies the difficulties concealed behind that fact. Dardia’s initial foray into the military saw him complete 22 of the 25 required weeks of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (commonly shortened to “BUD/S”) before he was medically discharged out of the Navy at only 21 years of age. From there, Dardia embarked on a four-year chase for the renewal of his military employment—eventually rejoining the U.S. Armed Forces under the 18 XRAY Contract—and has been fully engaged in Special Forces services non-stop since 2003.
Dardia’s triumphant return to military eliteness was owed to his ability to successfully navigate the obstacles that blocked his progress in several crucial areas of life, not the least of which were poor decisions linked to nutrition, exercise, and mental preparedness. Now as a supervisor who oversees the training of Green Berets and prepares them for the rigors of harrowing combat, Dardia is able to ensure that the latest innovations in holistic health are administered to his trainees, with the intention of maintaining the optimal levels of performance in all of the Special Operators he has been tasked to serve.
What are the bare minimum physical fitness requirements that you have to meet in order to become a Green Beret, and do those differ from the real performance expectations requested of you once you join a Special Operations unit?
In the Army when we came in, we had regular Army physical fitness test. It was the running, it was the pull-ups, it was the push-ups, and then in selection you had to do 12 pull-ups. That was pretty much it. That was the PT standard, and then later on you had a swim test. That was your basic entry into Special Forces. The modern requirements for Special Forces entry are 49 push-ups in two minutes, 59 sit-ups in two minutes, a two-mile run in 15:12 or less, and six dead-hang pull-ups.
In terms of what is expected once you’re in, I’m with a bunch of guys right now who are going through Navy SEAL Green Team training. They’re looking at 80 as the number of push-ups they strive for as the minimum to get into certain units within Naval Special Warfare. The minimum standard is a different number, but in order to be competitive and get looked at, you really want a minimum of 80.
How relevant are those rep- and time-based training cutoffs when it comes to actual performance in a combat environment?
The two-mile run time didn’t really factor into anything I did in combat. It’s a good gauge of cardiovascular fitness, but as far as operations needs, it wasn’t really a good gauge. I’ve never had to do push-ups or bench pressing in combat. I’ve never had to complete a two-mile run in combat, but I’ve had to endure heavy equipment and weight on my back for multiple days. A two-mile run is not a good gauge for someone’s ability to walk with 40 to 120 pounds of stuff on their shoulders. That’s why during our selection and assessment process we put a lot of weight on people and make them walk.
Did I have to carry heavy things? Yes. Did I have to get in and out of vehicles all the time with heavy weights, or climb walls and get behind obstacles? Yes, absolutely. What we did in our Special Operator readiness test definitely did a good job of replicating that environment. But in terms of climbing ropes for example, I’ve gone down tons of ropes from helicopters during missions, but never had to climb a rope up into a helicopter.
If someone outside of the military is attempting to evaluate their own physical fitness level based on elite military standards, is that a solid assessment tool for a civilian to be utilizing, or is someone who takes that approach missing the point if they’re judging their own level of fitness by specific military assessment standards?
It’s absolutely a good assessment tool, because that’s the standard you have to reach in order to get through the gate to become one of us. Following those standards will absolutely set you up for success. That’s what I did before I went to BUD/S: push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, running, and climbing rope. I did as many push-ups as I could do in three minutes, and as many sit-ups as I could do, because that’s the gate you need to get past in order to get in the door. I did it every damn day, and then when I got to BUD/S I did very well because I was already doing what would be required of me before I got there. When you get to training, you’re gonna get smoked 24-7, so you’re better prepared for what you’ll be facing in that setting if you’re already doing what they expect you to do. That’s exactly what you’re going to be doing when you’re going through those training pipelines.
Please keep in mind, those are gatekeeping numbers, but the best way to put yourself into the position to do what a Green Beret does is to do things that are more operationally relevant. To get through the screening process, you have to hit those numbers, and those things will get you to the gate where you can get started, but what makes a Green Beret is not how fast you are or how many push-ups you can do. That’s why we have other assessment tools in our pipeline to look at the other stuff. When I work at an embassy, they don’t care about my run time.
Can you walk us through a week of modern Special Ops programming so that we have a fuller sense of what it entails?
We now have strength coaches and physical therapists. We’ve taken the pro-sports training model to elite military environments. We’re also mission-focused: We don’t have a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to training a team. We’re going to adapt our training to the efficiencies we see in your movement pattern, and your ability to do your job. Then we’re going to look at what that job entails. If your mission calls for you to climb down from a helicopter and sprint 50 yards into buildings with all of your gear, those expectations and movement patterns will be factored into your training.
Our athletic trainers and strength-and-conditioning coaches do different training for different areas of operation and different mission sets. We have mountain teams, dive teams, free-fall teams and vehicle-mobility teams, and the training is going to be different for each of those teams. When I was on a dive team, we did a lot of swimming and a lot of maritime stuff. We were always in the water; a mountain team is probably not going to worry about swimming.
We didn’t have mountains in Syria, whereas the guys in Afghanistan sometimes had their base camps at 6,000 to 9,000 feet. If you’re going to be walking with 100 pounds of stuff on, you’re going to have to train and acclimate for that environment. If a team is going to be walking and patrolling on foot instead of in vehicles and helicopters, their train-up is going to be slightly different from that of a team that’s doing direct access to missions and driving all the time. It’s all mission-dependent.
You were discharged from the military your first time around during Navy SEAL training. What do you think it was that you were lacking during that initial attempt at joining Special Ops?
I was physically prepared and mentally prepared; I wasn’t doing the maintenance. I didn’t understand the impacts of stress, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and poor lifestyle choices. I didn’t understand the consequences of not giving my body the ability to repair itself and the consequences of putting things in my body that probably shouldn’t be in there when I’m in a high-stress environment.
What were you doing incorrectly from a nutritional standpoint, and what have you done to correct that?
Going into the military at 20 years old, you think you’re indestructible. We obviously ate the food they provided us while we were in training, but when we weren’t in training, I was putting in restaurant foods, inflammatory foods, alcohol, and other things that were degrading performance rather than enhancing it and helping my body to reduce inflammation. This was the ‘90s, and there wasn’t too much information out there on the military side of the house. We had the Navy SEAL nutrition guide, but when you’re 21 years old you think you’re indestructible and that certain rules don’t apply to you. I wasn’t in a receptive mode for that higher level of nutrition guidance back then.
We also didn’t have health coaches. We didn’t have a human performance program in BUD/S at that time. It just wasn’t taught. We were told, “Don’t quit, suck it up, and try harder,” and that’s what we did. Every day we were still there was a good day. It wasn’t like now where we have the resources, the education, the coaching, and the programs we have in place to get Special Operators to perform better and last longer.
How does training with a combat mindset or a preparedness mindset so that you’re always ready to go compare to the mindset of someone training for athletic achievement or for the sake of vanity and appearance?
For our community as a whole, we have different outcomes and different end states. Training for the Olympics is a little different than training for an environment that you might not come home from, let alone bring a trophy back with you from. You have to go in with that mindset knowing that at some point in time you could be maimed, severely harmed, and at some point you might not come home. I never had to worry about that when I was playing lacrosse or soccer. Getting in the mindset of being able to accept those outcomes and clear them off the plate so that you can focus on the missions, you really need to train for that. You have to be resilient and expect catastrophe.
That’s where the stress inoculation of our training comes in, to get you into the mindset to understand that this is not sports. You’re not trying to get a trophy, a medal or a ribbon. This is literally life or death, and we must accomplish the mission, and we want to get home and bring our guys back alive. We talk about sports being like combat, or a playing field being like a battlefield, but really there’s no comparison whatsoever.
What are some of the hardest aspects of Special Ops training that most people don’t consider – whether they’re civilians or recruits – and they find it stunning when they encounter it or hear about it?
A lot of it is work-life balance. When you’re in a training pipeline for this, that’s it – you’re committed. You may say that your family is the top priority, but when you’re going through training, that’s all there is in life. You have to dedicate all of your energy and focus to that. It’s good to establish expectation management with your family so that they know you’re going to be totally devoted to training for the next year, and making sure they understand and support you in those efforts.
You really have to be dedicated and committed to be successful in these programs because it’s going to tear you in 100 different directions, and you’ll be overwhelmed with information. You also need expectation management of yourself in not wanting to fail, and to perform optimally in the face of adversity. That’s going to be challenging. To get yourself through training of this caliber, you have to mentally prepare and be dead laser-focused.
Have you picked up any life hacks or special skills as a result of your training, like falling asleep even when you’re at your most stressed?
Sleep is often the last thing that gets maintained in our lives. It’s the last thing we put any effort into because we put everyone else’s fires out all day, then we get home and have to put out family fires. The last thing that gets maintained is us – the individual. Sleep is the last thing that gets implemented in our household. We have to make sure everything else is good, and by the time we get to bed, we’re worried about tomorrow and we don’t sleep well.
That’s one thing we brought into our organization with cognitive performance and behavior health. It’s all important: sleep hygiene, stress management, breathing exercises, setting up the environment for sleep, and simply learning why sleep is so important for your maintenance, along with rebuilding and repairing the body. We’ve done a good job with that, along with enjoying the benefits of wearable technology as well. Just because you lay in bed for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re getting eight hours of restorative sleep. We educate and show why sleep is so critical to health, not just to performance, but also to recovery. When we get people to understand what causes sleep deprivation and disorders, then we get people to invest in the process of getting quality, restorative sleep. That has had a huge impact.
That’s one of the easiest things you can fix without a prescription or a surgery or missing training. You can do it on your own with some basic knowledge and a little bit of wearable technology. Just having the type of watch that tracks sleep, heart rate variability and movement in your bed makes a huge difference. Someone may say they slept eight hours, but then the cognitive-performance people can look at the data and say, “Yeah, you were in bed for eight hours, but your oxygen is tanking, you’re moving, you didn’t get deep, restorative sleep, and you’re thrashing in your bed.” When we get that information and education to them, they come back and say, “Holy crap! I did some sleep hygiene, I dropped 35 seconds off my run time, I’m gaining more muscle mass, and I feel 100-times better.”
What is the biggest myth with respect to being a Green Beret that you often find yourself combating, or that you wish you could debunk once and for all?
One of the myths is that we’re invincible. We are very resilient, but that mentality that we use to make ourselves appear invincible can become self-destructive sometimes, because we don’t do the maintenance and don’t do the repair, and then we drive ourselves into the ground.
Aside from that, as far as misconceptions go, everyone seems to think that all Special Operations personnel are simply Navy SEALS wearing different uniforms. Each group is a separate entity with its own special skills. And while we’re on the topic, there is a difference between Special Operations and Special Forces. There’s a huge misconception that Special Forces is everybody; it’s only the Green Berets. The media gets that one wrong 99% of the time. Special Operations encompasses all of the different branches of Special Operators; when you hear the terms “Special” and “Forces” in the same sentence, that is the Green Berets, period.
What’s the best piece of advice that a mentor has ever given you to help you succeed in staying motivated and focused when you’re doing your training?
To always keep the goal in mind. Keep your purpose and why you’re doing what you’re doing burned clearly into your mind. That way, when you’re going through all of that suffering in the midst of all that training, you know why you’re there. Your purpose, your identity and your spirituality – what gets you out of bed every morning, and what drove you to get into that organization – keep that crystal clear focus in the back of your mind at all times. That way, you’ve got that light house, which is that guiding light that helps you get through those dark times.
That’s your resilience. The ability to get knocked down, get back up, move forward, and grow. That’s something that every person should know whether they’re going into the military or not. You need to have that reason why, that purpose, and that spirituality. That has to be whole. If it’s not, you’re not going to be grounded, and when things get rough in your life and you have nothing to go back to or cling to in order to get you out of that hole, you’re going to be in a rough spot.
If you’re in the gym, and there’s a 17- or 18-year-old kid next to you, and he sees you working out and asks what he needs to do in order to get in shape like you, what fitness advice are you going to give him?
Be consistent. To accomplish big things, you just need to accomplish a lot of little things and be consistent with it. Don’t get hyper focused in one area; be well-rounded, like the jack of all trades. When it comes to staying in shape and being well, you have to repair and maintain yourself. You have to do self care and self maintenance.
If you want to build things – like your muscles, your mind or your resilience – then you have to make good decisions. Everything you’re putting in your body is either fighting resilience or it’s building resilience; it’s either fighting disease, or it’s fueling it. Make better decisions. Understand that your body isn’t like a rental car. Take care of it. Maintain it. You’re not going to get a new one, so put all of the best things into your body, and take good care of yourself.
Is there any additional advice that you would give advice seekers outside of fitness?
When we talk about “fitness,” we take a holistic approach to it. The physical component, whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic conditioning, power or strength, it all needs to coincide with a focus on sleep, meditation, therapy and family life. All of that contributes to overall fitness. That’s the approach we take with the Green Berets as our approach to overall performance and wellness in our program.
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